Tag Archives: Center Theater Group

New Plays in LA: More Women, More Diversity for a More Perfect Union

LA Stage Day

LA Stage Day

by Holly L. Derr

It was a sunny day and LA Stage Alliance was hosting LA Stage Day, a gathering of Los Angeles theater folk centered around inspirational presentations, workshops, and breakout sessions. So I ventured down the 5 to University Hills, just off the 10, where participants in small group discussions like “Leading Diversity on the LA Stage,” “New Media in the Rehearsal Room,” and “Blue Sky: What Are Your Dream Ideas?” were sharing best practices, brainstorming new ideas, and challenging their own assumptions about how theater works.

As part of a day geared around questions like how to engage new, increasingly diverse, tech savvy audiences, the playwriting workshop stood out for advocating the safest route to getting produced. Led by four men and one woman, “Play!: The 60-minute Everything-You-Need-to-Know-About-Playwriting-in-LA Marathon” offered such revelatory tidbits as “cast a name actor or no one will come see your play,” “every story has to have a protagonist and a resolution,” and “plays only get produced when they have small casts and one set.” Now these things are all well and good if that’s the kind of play you want to write, but what if the best actors you can get have impeccable training but aren’t names? What if the world as you see it or as you want to show it has multiple protagonists and locations, lots of people, and conflicts that don’t necessarily get resolved? What if you want to make art more than you want to sell tickets? What if you’re a woman?

Play reading at Playwrights Union

Play reading at Playwrights Union

In search of more fertile ground for innovative new play development, I headed up the 101 to Silver Lake for a reading of Crazy Bitch, a new play by Jennie Webb, presented by The Playwrights Union. As if the theater gods had heard my cry, Webb’s 70-minute play has not one but four protagonists, one of which is a character called The Immortal Jellyfish who is described as 4.5mm wide and lives in a petri dish. And though the play, which is set in LA, deeply investigates questions of life and death, the actual plot is left unresolved. Asked to what extent her play was consciously created in relation to the commercialism of Los Angeles, Webb said:

I’ve lived here all my life but this is the first play I’ve set here. I just got tired of all the new plays set in New York and gave myself a challenge to set one in LA. But I’m not savvy enough to write what’s producible. I write what I write and I hope it speaks to someone. I’d rather write plays where a woman loses body parts or shoes start raining from the ceiling. I call it “domestic absurdism,” with domestic meaning everyday life, because I find that life is absurd, especially for women.

The Playwrights Union

The Playwrights Union

In contrast to the male-heavy representation among speakers at LA Stage Day, a full five of the seven readings done that weekend by The Playwrights Union were by women. The Union, which began in 2009 as a meeting of interested colleagues in organizer Jennifer Haley’s backyard, hosts an annual February challenge to write a play in a month. Participating playwrights gather over a long weekend to read and talk about one another’s plays. They do another round of rewrites and then host a weekend of public readings with actors. Haley, whose own play The Nether recently premiered at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater, told me:

We have about thirty members, and there was a time when we had to recruit men in order to achieve parity. Right now it’s about even, but more women participated in the February Challenge that led to these plays.

Asked how her writing functions in relation to the commercial culture of Hollywood and the idea of what’s “producible,” Haley offered:

I’ve worked as a playwright in Austin, Seattle and all over the East Coast. Studying at Brown with Paula Vogel, I learned to play with both experimental and traditional forms.  I think circulation in a variety of theater communities helps you look at different models… there are new Playwrights arriving all the time in LA, and it will be interesting to see if this influences the kind of work being done here.

Though many playwrights are drawn to Los Angeles to write for television, others come here to study and end up making the city their home. Brittany Knupper, a recent grad from the playwriting program headed by Alice Tuan at the California Institute of the Arts—just up the 5 from the Valley—talked to me about her first year living here as a writer:

A lot of people their first year out of school have an existential crisis. Maybe mine just hasn’t hit yet but it hasn’t been that bad. Then again I constantly feel like I’m in an existential crisis, so maybe I’m just used to it. At CalArts I felt like I wasn’t being experimental enough as a writer, but in Hollywood people think what I do is too experimental. LA is such an industry town: People are trying to do anything they can to make a connection. You can feel the desperation. It’s funky and weird and gross, and I kind of like how dirty and weird it is.

Knupper has found an artistic outlet in storytelling, a popular form of Los Angeles entertainment in which people gather in theaters, bars, and homes to hear individuals read stories, usually autobiographical, but sometimes fictional. These pop-up salons feature the work of playwrights, journalists, fiction writers, and essayists and provide writers with regular opportunities to present work and receive feedback from within a supportive community.

Because the nightmare of driving in LA keeps most Angelenos locked in their own neighborhoods, writers who want to reach a city-wide audience have to create communities like these, organized around the discipline rather than through established institutions. Jennie Webb and writer/mythologist Laura Shamas formed just such an association in 2009—the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative—to coordinate efforts to get more plays by women produced on local stages. Webb related,

LA is almost pridefully inaccessible. We needed an organization that would bring women together and spread the word that women writers exist. We are focused on connecting artists to one another, supporting one another by going to see each others plays, and getting the message out that it pays to produce work by women.

PowderPuffPilots

LA Female Playwrights Initiative

Clearly LA is not lacking in women playwrights, yet a study done by LAFPI in conjunction with LA Stage Alliance revealed that between 2000 and 2010, only 20% of plays produced in Los Angeles were written or co-written by women.

Hopefully next year’s LA Stage Day will address the lack of gender diversity on our city’s stages. Organizers at the Alliance should start by asking more women to speak and conduct workshops and should include breakout sessions addressing the issue. For their part, producers need to recognize that the only way to appeal to new audiences is to tell stories in new ways, which is why I’m going to stay on the trail of the LA writing underground, where work by women—and experimental work at that—is flourishing.

Holly L. Derr is a writer, director, and professor of theater specializing in the Viewpoints & Composition, the performance of gender, and applied theater history. This post originally appeared on HowlRound. Holly is also a blogger for Ms., where she writes about theater, film, and culture. Follow her on twitter @hld6oddblend.

Meet the Cast of the West Coast Premiere of ‘On the Spectrum’ at the Fountain Theatre

Spectrum_image_2

Casting is now complete for our upcoming West Coast Premiere of On the Spectrum by Ken LaZebnik, directed by Jacqueline Schultz. Awarded a 2012 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award citation and granted a 2011 Edgerton Foundation New American Play award, On the Spectrum is a funny and touching love story between a young man with Asperger’s and a young woman with autism. Previews begin March 9th and it opens March 16th.

Meet The Cast:

Dan ShakedDan Shaked (Mac) is from New York and making his Fountain Theatre debut. He is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts drama program and studied at The Lee Strasberg Film/Theater Institute and at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He can be seen in the upcoming films “The Broken” and “Homeward”, the TV movie “Gilded Lilys” with Blythe Danner, and was a guest star on ABC’s “Body of Proof”.  He played the lead role in the film  “Storm up the Sky,” selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. He has worked at LaMaMA in New York City and played the lead role in Boston’s UnderGround Railway Theater’s production of Naomi Wallace’s “The Fever Chart” at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge.

Virginia NewcombVirginia Newcomb (Iris) was last seen at the Fountain Theatre in the 2011 West Coast Premiere of the rarely-seen Tennessee Williams play A House Not Meant to Stand. She recently co-starred on stage in The Grapes of Wrath at Knightsbridge Theatre, Sweet Bird of Youth at the Marilyn Monroe  Theatre and This Property is Condemned at the Globe Playhouse. She has appeared on TV’s “The Office” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and can be seen in the new comedy webseries “Bandmates“. Virginia stars in the lead role in “The Boogeyman”, a feature film based on Stephen King’s short story.

Jeanie-HackettJeanie Hackett (Elisabeth) is well known to Los Angeles theater audiences. She served as Artistic Director of two prestigious Los Angeles ensemble companies: The Classical Theatre Lab & The Antaeus Company. She has played several roles for LA Theater Works, including Trifles with Amy Madigan. And with The Antaeus Company: Tonight at 8:30 & The Autumn Garden, along with numerous readings & workshops. Broadway credits include Stella in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (with Blythe Danner) at Circle in the Square & Belle in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness at the Roundabout. Off-Broadway she’s been seen in new plays at Soho Rep, The Promenade & The Harold Clurman Theaters. She received her Equity card at the Williamstown Theater Festival where she appeared in over a dozen plays such as The Greeks, Room Service, The Bay at Nice, Summerfolk The Front Page among others. She’s performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, South Coast Rep, Center Theater Group, Long Wharf, Three River Shakespeare Festival & The Tennessee Williams Arts Center playing leading roles in Richard III (Lady Anne) The Winter’s Tale (Perdita, Hermione) The Taming of The Shrew (Kate) Hamlet (Ophelia) Cyrano de Bergerac (Roxanne) Uncle Vanya (Yelena) Old Times (Kate) Arms and The Man (Louka) How the Other Half Loves(Teresa) Vieux Carre (Jane Sparks) & Present Laughter (Joanna) among others. Other LA Theater credits include: The Seagull (Matrix), Black Box (Odyssey), Phaedra (Getty Villa), Light Pera Palas (Theatre@Boston Court), Kate Crackernuts (24th Street Theater) & Andromache in The Trojan Women at CBS Radford. Recent film work includes: The Words (with Bradley Cooper & Dennis Quaid),Take Me Home Tonight (with Topher Grace), King of California (with Michael Douglas) & Post Grad (with Michael O’Keefe & Carol Burnett.) Favorite television work: Lie to Me, Lincoln Heights, Medium, Criminal Minds, The “L” Word, Charmed, Judging Amy (recurring) & playing Queen Margaret from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 on The West Wing. On the Spectrum marks her debut at the Fountain Theatre.

On the Spectrum March 16 – April 29 (323) 663-1525  More Info

Women Attend More Theatre Than Men: Why Not More Roles?

by Lauren Gunderson

"El Nogalar" at the Fountain Theatre.

It appears that in many major theaters across the country, men’s roles out number women’s by half. One out of every three roles go to women. (An informal survey of 10 theatrical seasons from across the country that I did put women in only 35% of the total roles). This means that men’s stories out number women’s by the same amount.

Those of us noticing this could be considered big old whiners if it weren’t for some solid business-y sounding facts:

  • Women buy 70% of theater tickets sold
  • Women make up 60%-70% of its audience (see here and here)
  • On Broadway, shows written by women (who statistically write more female roles than men) actually pull in more at the box office than plays by men

In any other market the majority of consumers would significantly define the product or experience. Why not theater?

Raushanah Simmons in "In the Red and Brown Water"

I will disclaim right away that this is not about women playwrights, though plays by women represent less than 20% of the works on and off-Broadway and in regional theaters (and also in the UK, as The Guardian illuminates). I consider August: Osage County and In The Red And Brown Water plays about women though men wrote both.

This is about modern theater telling its predominantly female audiences that the human experience deserving of dramatic imagination is still the male one. In TV, this might be a top-down insistence. In politics or business we see it all the time. But in theater?

Sean Daniels, Artist-At-Large/Director of Artistic Engagement at Geva Theater, says:

“In addition to it being inconceivable in 2012 to not program any female playwrights (or really any year past 1913), it’s also just bad business. Just from a business model, look at Menopause: The Musical. Though we may take it to task for not hitting all of Aristotle’s Six Elements, it’s a show that looked at who the main people buying tickets were, and allowed them to see themselves on stage — thus making millions and not only preaching and loving the choir, but getting tons of new patrons into the theater.”

But what would it be like if this were more common? What if American theater equally reflected and projected its own audience (at least 60% women) and their audience’s wallets (which are in their purses) in their season choices?

Estelle Parsons on Broadway in "August: Osage County"

Theaters might make more money. A friend and artistic leader at a major regional theater remarked on the marked success of Molly Smith Metzler’s plays Elemeno Pea, a play about sisters. Or what about Tracy Letts runaway hit August: Osage County (a play with incredible parts for women including three sisters), or Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, or Margaret Edson’s Wit, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt or Steve Yockey’s Bellwether (with seven parts for women)?

Cate Blanchett in "Streetcar Named Desire".

We wouldn’t lose our classics. Shakespeare’s plays are notoriously under-femmed, but not all of them are. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night or wacky Midsummer. Or re-imagine the Bard for us. I saw a truly fresh and powerful production of Julius Caesar at Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year in which Caesar was unapologetically played by a woman (it might have been the best show I saw all year, including my own). I didn’t think “Oh look at that woman playing a man’s part.” I thought, “Oh my god she’s channeling Benazir Bhutto.”

Ibsen also gave us stunning women’s stories. So did Shaw, Chekov, Williams, Miller. And don’t forget the female playwrights of those same eras. Complex parts for more than one token women are there for the planning.

We might inspire new classics. I’m not telling playwrights what to write.Wait. Hell yes I am. And I’m hoping they get commissions to do so. Please write those complex and shocking and profound parts for our great female actors. Lead roles, supporting roles, lots of roles. Imagine writing for Stockard Channing or Viola Davis or Amy Morton or Meryl Streep. How about putting all of them in the same play. Oh my god, I just died a little thinking about it.

However, the now famous study by social scientist Emily Glassberg Sands about gender bias in theater says that though female playwrights write more roles for women, they are aware that plays with female protagonists aren’t as likely to be produced as plays with male protagonists. “One way women have compensated for writing female stories is to write fewer [female] roles, which make their plays accessible to more theaters,” the study finds.

So American theater might need a theatrical version of the The Bechdel Test for movies which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

There are bright spots however. Chloe Bronzan and Robert Parsons of Symmetry Theater in San Francisco have already put into practice their own version of the Bechdel Test. They built their company around the precepts: “We will never produce a play with more male than female characters,” they said, “We will never have more male than female union actors on our stage and we will produce plays that tell stories which include full, fleshed out and complex women that serve as propellants to the human story being told.”

"Menopause: The Musical"

We won’t lose our audiences, but we might just gain new ones. Another Artistic Director colleague noted that if theater companies counted Menopause: The Musical as part of their actual season (as opposed to the touring or rental production it usually is) it would be the best-selling show in their histories. Why? Women go to the theater and they bring their friends if they have shows that reflect their experiences. A dear friend connected with August: Osage County‘s fierce females so much that she flew from Atlanta to New York three times just to see it as many times on Broadway.

As Hanna Rosen has pointed out in her articles and lectures — there is a definitive rise in women as breadwinners and moneymakers in this country. I live in the Bay Area and am delightfully surrounded by brilliant women running major intuitions, businesses, and government orgs. Smart institutions will notice this and deliver. Women are already your majority, and women share experiences with other women, so it shouldn’t be hard to bring new women into the theater patronizing community.

Sean Daniels again:

“I think there’s a hidden thinking in here that men won’t watch women centric plays, but women will watch men centric plays — which really just sells everyone in that equation short. There are men watching The Hunger Games, but eventually there won’t be ladies watching dude filled plays and seasons.”

Viola Davis in "Fences".

We might help the world. Women are always underrepresented in positions of money, power, and personal safety. This comes, as most inherent biases do, from a lack of understanding and empathy. If we see more stories of women on stages across the country and the world we can change that.

Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being “women’s plays” and start being — oh, y’know — really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender.

Theater audiences want the designers of theatrical seasons to pay attention to the women onstage. Count them (as Valerie Week is doing in The Bay). The women in your audiences will.

Joy Meads of Center Theater Group in LA says:

“It’s frustrating that we have to have this conversation in 2012. But I’ve experienced this in my conversations about plays with colleagues across the country. Colleagues dismissing a play because its female protagonist was ‘unlikable.’ Producers should recognize that ‘we just choose the best plays’ is no longer an adequate defense: no one believes that there’s a shadowy cabal of avowed misogynists determined to keep women offstage. We need to be brave and rigorous in examining the shadowy, unconscious ways gender bias influences our decision making.”

Theater should be in the complex and necessary business of illuminating the human condition, of inspiring empathy and community, of provoking understanding, of entertaining and surprising and exposing and making beautiful the complete world of our time.

You know what helps that?

Telling everyone’s stories.

Lauren Gunderson is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and short story author living in The Bay Area. She received her MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU Tisch, her BA from Emory University, is an NYU a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. Her work has received national praise and awards. She writes for The Huffington Post.